Some dishes are so special that taking them off of the menu would cause a riot. And after a long day of skiing in Aspen, The Little Nell’s tortilla soup feels like one of those dishes. Served at Element 47, this wonderful soup is loaded with rich tortilla broth, juicy chicken, melty pepperjack cheese, and avocado. We were so inspired (and missed this dish when we weren’t in Aspen) that we re-created the best tortilla soup recipe at home.
About The Nell
The Little Nell isn’t just a luxury resort — it’s an institution of Aspen. It’s also the mountain town’s only five-star, five-diamond hotel with ski-in/out access. So it only makes sense that celebrities love to flock to the après-ski hot spot, with its hygge-chic design and views of Aspen Mountain. And did we mention the chicken tortilla soup recipe is really good?
The Secrets to Our Tortilla Soup Recipe
There are a few key components here that take your average chicken tortilla soup to the next level. First, making your own tortilla strips is non-negotiable. Second, don’t be afraid to go a little crazy with the seasoning. Remember, the base of this soup is relatively mild (essentially just broth and tomatoes), so a boost of flavor is nothing to be afraid of. And as for that base, using high-quality sweet tomatoes makes all the difference. We recommend San Marzano, but go with your favorite brand. Lastly, this recipe starts with searing off some bacon. We know, it’s not traditional by any means. But by sautéing your aromatics in a bacon fat, you build an extra-complex, extra-smoky soup. Just trust us on this one.
For the tortilla strips:
20 corn tortillas
For the spice blend:
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
2 tbsp smoked paprika
1.5 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp Italian seasoning
1 tbsp coarsely ground fresh black pepper
1 tsp cumin
For the soup:
4 strips of bacon
4 chicken thighs (boneless, skinless)
2-4 tbsp of the creole spice blend
6 cloves garlic
1-2 serrano peppers, de-seeded
2 dried guajillo chiles, de-seeded
1 dried ancho chile, de-seeded
4 cups chicken stock
2 ears corn
Half of a 28 oz can crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
Salt to taste
Juice of ½ a lime
Pepperjack cheese, freshly grated
Shredded cheddar, freshly grated
Sour cream or charred scallion crema
For the Tortilla Strips
Begin by frying your tortilla strips. Heat two inches of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and let rise to a temperature of 350 degrees. While the oil heats, stack your 20 corn tortillas and cut them into slices of your desired size. Working in batches, add a handful of strips to the oil. Let these fry for about 5-7 minutes, or until the oil has stopped bubbling and the strips are golden brown. Immediately transfer to a paper towel-lined colander and salt generously. Repeat this process with the remaining tortilla strips, and set them aside until you’re ready to serve. The tortillas are a key component to this tortilla soup recipe, so going the extra mile to fry them up makes a big difference.
For the Spice Mix
While the tortilla strips are frying, mix together your creole seasoning. Combine the paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, black pepper, cayenne, and cumin in a bowl. Use 1-2 tbsp of this spice blend and a generous sprinkle of salt to season both sides of your chicken thighs.
For the Soup
In a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pan, sear the seasoned chicken thighs in a tbsp of vegetable oil over medium high heat. Cook the thighs for about 2-3 minutes on each side, just long enough to get some color on them. Remove from the pan and set aside on a cutting board.
Reduce the heat to low and add the slices of bacon. Cook the bacon slowly and over a very low heat, allowing the fat to render out slowly and making the bacon extra crispy. This should take about 15-20 minutes. Flip once halfway through. If you don’t eat pork, you can omit this step for the tortilla soup recipe.
Meanwhile, prepare the rest of your ingredients. Mince half of the onion, and cut the remaining half into quarters. Next, mince 1-2 serrano peppers (depending on your desired spice level), and three cloves of garlic. For the corn, remove the kernels and set both the kernels and the reserved cobs aside. We’ll use the cobs later to flavor the broth base and reduce food waste. It’s a win-win.
Once the bacon is crispy, remove and place on a paper-towel-lined plate. To the same pan, add the minced onion, garlic, and peppers. Season generously with salt and 1 tbsp of your spice blend. Using a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pan to mix together the fond (browned bacon bits) with the vegetables. Sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes, continually scraping the bottom of the pan.
For the Broth
Of all the components of this tortilla soup recipe, the broth is the foundation. When the onions and garlic are soft and fragrant, add the guajillo and ancho chiles, chicken stock, corn cobs, and chicken thighs. Cook over medium high until boiling, then immediately reduce the heat to medium. Simmer for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and cooked through.
Next, remove the corn cobs, chiles, and chicken from the broth. Discard the corn cobs, but add the chiles to a blender. With the chiles, blend together the diced tomatoes, quartered onion, a handful of cilantro, 1 ½ cups of soup broth, 3 cloves of garlic, a pinch of creole seasoning, and a heaping tbsp of chicken bouillon until smooth. Add this mixture back to the dutch oven, and let simmer and reduce while you shred the chicken.
Let the soup reduce for an additional five minutes before turning off the heat. Next, add the chicken and raw corn kernels and stir together until everything is warm. Finish with a squeeze of lime juice, tasting and seasoning as needed.
Finally, for this tortilla soup recipe, assembly is key. To serve, add a handful of tortilla strips to the bottom of your bowl. Top with a mixture of pepperjack and sharp cheddar, then broil for about two minutes to let the cheese get all melty. Ladle the soup over your cheesy chip mound, and serve it with your favorite toppings. We recommend a slice of lime, an avocado, a sprig of cilantro, raw corn, a few serrano slices, sour cream, and more cheese and tortilla strips. To really up your garnish game, swap the sour cream for charred scallion crema. You can find the recipe here.
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